By Jim Castagnera
Attorney at Large
“Life is what happens when you’re making plans.” So said John Lennon, who never saw Mark David Chapman coming on December 8, 1980. Twenty-six years ago I was a beleaguered law student who seldom saw anything coming. As the eighties proceeded apace, I sure never saw the computer revolution, even though it was screaming down the track like a locomotive. I’ve read recently that a $5000 investment in Microsoft in 1985 would translate into millions today. Ah, well…
Smarter people by far have shared my lack of foresight. For instance, neither Henry Kissinger nor Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s hot-shot national security advisor, predicted the sudden end of the “Evil Empire,” and along with the Soviet Union, the Cold War, in 1989-1990. Who really expected Apartheid to end in South Africa without an armed uprising followed by a bloodbath? Still, it happened.
Now, the national debate is driven by the Iraq Commission Report. With Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, a beleaguered Mr. Bush must choose among a wide spectrum of policy options… not unlike a law student looking for the correct outcome of a difficult case. Senator John McCain, a Vietnam vet, seems to favor sending more troops to try and win; I find it instructive that a former POW takes this stance. On the other side of the aisle, many Democrats seem to want out now. The commission is somewhere around the middle, calling for withdrawals in early 2008… maybe.
Philosopher George Santayana also said something worth repeating here: “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” I believe it was 60s peace activist Jerry Rubin who quipped, “Those who do study history are doomed to repeat it.” This goes hand-in-hand with “The generals are always fighting the last war.” Thus, in 1939 the French, recalling the trench warfare of 1914-1918, felt secure behind their Maginot Line. German Blitzkrieg proved them tragically wrong.
Since 1974 American military policy has reflected our ignominious withdrawal from Southeast Asia. The Powell Doctrine calls for quick incursions with overwhelming force. The doctrine came up trumps in the first Gulf war. Today, more than three years after reentering Iraq, our war looks a lot more like Vietnam than Gulf One.
Does that mean we must assume another inevitable, ignominious withdrawal? Or is there, perhaps, a lesson to be learned from the Soviet Union and South Africa?
As Lennon didn’t know the hour of his death and Henry K. didn’t know the hour of the Berlin Wall’s demise, nobody knows the answer to those questions either. The Vietnam War doesn’t offer that answer. Neither do the platitudes of George Santayana nor the quips of Jerry Rubin. All we have to go on are best evidence, guts and faith.
Nonetheless, am I Pollyanna if I add yet another question, asking if an extraordinary opportunity presents itself in the Middle East at this moment in history? There, at least, is a question worth asking.
A U.S. prepared to “stay the course” — something Mr. Bush no longer dares to say — just might be able to broker a lasting settlement in the region. Yes, that will mean dealing with arch enemies and perennial troublemakers, including Iran, Syria, Hamaas and Hesbola. At least the conversation can occur in their own neighborhood, so long as Uncle Sam remains encamped in the Green Zone.
One thing about studying history, whether you liked it or not when in school, is it gives a bit of perspective… a touch of temporal depth. We desperately need this in our age of Internet access, text messages, instant replays and 30-second sound bites.
The Cold War had a 45-year run. The seemingly disastrous decade in Vietnam should be viewed in perspective as part of this bigger picture… a set-back in a long, ultimately successful national struggle.
The same might be said of the past three years in Iraq. I don’t know. I was buying airlines stocks when I should have been investing in Microsoft. I’ve never seen around a corner in my life. Still, I subscribe to Santayana over Rubin. We must study history. The real trick is to know which lesson to draw from our studies. All this column urges is that we take a long view of the present war in Iraq and consider the Pollyanna-ish possibility of a positive outcome in terms of an American Mid-East policy for the 21st century.
By Jim Castagnera